Shifting Eye of Africa's Storm Fragile Democracy in Sierra Leone at Risk as Liberians Flee Their Civil War

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ALONG a 2-1/2 mile stretch of West Africa's finest beaches, American soldiers, United Nations officials, and merchants cool off as waves gently roll up. Locals sell drinks and souvenirs. Overhead the occasional commercial helicopter flies in and deposits the last few evacuees from the chaos next door in Liberia.

Three American soldiers stroll down the beach in Bermuda shorts. "We're not even sure what country we're in," says one. "And right now we don't really care." They do know, however, that somewhere behind the lush mountain backdrop, rebels are fighting another vicious civil war in Africa, and that shore leave here means just that - stay by the shore.

A group of disheveled-looking United Nations staff members chat at their beachside hotel, some still in the clothes they wore when they fled Liberia. None could guess where they will be in a week. One said that what disheartened her most was the failure of the West African peacekeeping force, ECOMOG, to prevent the chaos. It "puts a question mark over the future of regional peacekeeping," she says. Regional solutions to conflict were what the UN has promoted because its shrinking budget has made it unable to act alone. Still, most of the UN personnel say they are hopeful that they will get back to Liberia. "We were really doing something for people," says an Irishman. One is more cynical. "It will take 10 years to get the country back to where it was two weeks ago," he says. Since the civil war began in 1991, greater Monrovia (the capital of Liberia) has been a "safe area" for about a million displaced people from the interior and a staging area for aid operations throughout Liberia. Fighting is reported to be continuing for the second week running with shelling and sniper fire throughout the city. Some 60,000 civilians are at risk of starvation. With most aid groups gone, "the future only holds renewed violence," according to one UN staff member. But what concerns people here still more is the prospect of humanitarian disaster spreading through the region, with millions of displaced and hungry Liberians crossing into neighboring countries, including Sierra Leone. On Wednesday, two new boat loads of evacuees from Liberia arrived in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Most of those on board were Lebanese business executives and UN and ECOMOG soldiers. But there was panic that Liberian "troublemakers" were among them. The Sierra Leone government has not yet allowed one of the ships to dock. Sierra Leone has reason to be concerned. The five-year-old civil war here began when the civil war in Liberia spilled across the border. …